It’s very alarming when something goes wrong on your computer and it starts to behave in ways you didn’t expect and certainly didn’t ask it to. It happens to the best of us, and this article isn’t specifically about how to prevent it, other than to say – leave it to the experts. Get protected by a trusted brand and let them worry about it, if something does slip through they will fix it for you.
But it’s almost equally alarming the amount of nonsense shared and opinionated about this kind of thing, and advice given about what to do to fix it. Often problems and the terms that relate to them are poorly understood and widely misused, and that’s where the confusion starts.
The all-encompassing term for Bad Things on the computer is malware, a contraction of malicious software – so this covers anything designed to harm your computer in some way, or to compromise its security. That includes spyware, worms, virus and all sorts of nasties.
A computer virus, specifically, is a programme which has been designed to copy itself and spread from one machine to another to do its damage – hence the biological metaphor. Usually they travel by attaching themselves to executable files, and they are designed by nasty minds to do nasty things – deleting files, corrupting things, or making your PC refuse to start up and open programmes. They are usually caught quickly by up-to-date antivirus applications, but sometimes there are arms-race/ catch-up periods where something new is sweeping through the online world and updates haven’t been released and applied yet.
You can best avoid viruses by not running dodgy programmes. Sounds easy enough but be particularly careful with anything sent to you that you are not expecting, even if it is sent from a friend. A virus might be able to hijack their address book to blast out a message saying how much they love this new track, go on have a listen – but if the filename is actually .mp3.exe instead of .mp3, that could be the viral vector.
Clicking on a link in an email cannot give you a virus. But, it can take you to unsafe websites where you may be tricked into downloading something bad – for example if you get an email from a trusted address saying they may have sent you an ‘infection’ or you sent them one, and you need to download a fix from (dodgy link).
Even if the download is not a virus it might be ‘scareware’ that effectively locks up your computer and holds it to ransom, demanding payment to put it right. Your best bet in this case is to Google the message or name (on another device) and find instructions, usually to run corrective software like ComboFix or MalwareBytes. This can be a time-consuming pain, when you need to download it and physically transfer it to your frozen shut PC.
Worms behave a bit like viruses in that they send copies of themselves to other PCs, usually through security holes in popular software. They can do a lot of damage and spread extremely rapidly, as they don’t rely on emails and user actions but exploit network vulnerabilities. In recent years worms like the Blaster or Code Red have made headline news for the trails of devastation caused worldwide -so as well as an up-to-date antivirus package you also need to make sure your firewall is both enabled and properly configured.
So what about Spyware? That’s the name for anything which sneaks its evil way into installing itself on your computer and sends back information to someone else. So they might be able to steal your passwords and bank information, or key-log your password entry. You might not even know you have this stuff running until you find your PC slowing up – it’s not designed to shut you down, the perpetrators actually want you to go on using your device normally and entering private information. Not every antivirus application will route out spyware, SuperAntiSpyware or MalwareBytes should do the business.
If you want your computer actually controlled by a distant entity however you really need to get yourself a Trojan. These are programmes with malicious code that are not what they seem to be, hence the ‘Trojan Horse’ name. They might create a back door to your computer for identity theft purposes, or enable programmes to be run on your machine to do bad things to others – such as sending out shedloads of spam, or participating in a ‘denial of service’ attack to take down a website.
They are not viruses because they cannot replicate themselves, they rely on unwitting users installing them, which is often done through ‘dodgy’ software download sites, such as those offering ‘cracks’ for expensive software packages. If you are going to have to spend out on a load of stuff for fixing damage to your machine, it might have been better to buy the proper licence in the first place…
Despite their differences the ways to keep yourself safe from most of these baddies are similar- keep your antivirus software up to date, don’t open attachments or download anything from a website you weren’t expecting or haven’t checked out properly, and don’t scour crackware sites for iffy hacks. If you get a problem on your PC despite these precautions then you can try to troubleshoot it using the links above, but if in doubt take it to a professional who can clean it up properly for you and help you protect yourself in future.
Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, 31st January 2014 ©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL